Pastor Chris Tweitmann
One of the reasons I believe the Holy Spirit
drew me to preach on the book of James,
is because the content of this letter,
written by one of the early leaders in the Church,
Jesus’ stepbrother, speaks so directly into this moment
in which we find ourselves.
2020 has been a year unlike any other we’ve experienced in a while.
• We continue to face the on-going threat of a global pandemic.
• Racial tensions within this country continue to escalate
• before repeated examples of injustice and inequity.
• The world economy has taken a blow
that most estimate it will take years from which to recover.
• The political divide appears to be ever widening as polarization
rather than unity define the citizenry in most nations – including ours.
And during all this, this unconventional time of uncertainty in our world,
most of us find ourselves perpetually tired and anxious
– living in a constant state of waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Many of us are increasingly frustrated with how things are being handled
even as we struggle with knowing for sure what the right answers are.
All of this, as we turn back to the words of James, makes the question
with which he opens our passage today, more timely than ever,
“Who is wise and understanding among you?”
Isn’t that exactly what we need right now? Wisdom and understanding.
If we ever there was a time wisdom was needed isn’t it this one?
But as we’re about to hear, this question from James is, in fact, a challenge.
Do we actually know what true wisdom is?
In the midst of a lot of foolishness both being spoken and being enacted around us
– perhaps even by us, do we understand where wisdom comes from?
These are the answers James is going to share with us today.
• What wisdom is and what it isn’t.
• From where we can find the right kind of wisdom
and from where we need to stop looking for wisdom.
• How to recognize true wisdom when we have it
and most importantly of all, how to put such wisdom into action.
Let’s listen to James, chapter 3, verse 17 through 22.
So, what exactly is wisdom?
James starts by giving us an indirect rather than a direct answer to this question.
Wisdom, he declares, is “shown by a good life,
by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
First of all, James redefines wisdom for us.
Wisdom isn’t something we merely think we have.
It’s not about our brain power or intellectual cleverness.
The Bible teaches us a great deal about wisdom and knowledge
and the word of God goes out of its way to show us
there is a distinction between wisdom and knowledge.
If we are open and receptive, there is an abundance of knowledge
that we can acquire and accumulate about any number of various topics.
But the Bible is clear,
a person can gain a great deal of knowledge, but not have or exercise wisdom.
Wisdom isn’t just about having knowledge.
Wisdom isn’t even about the insight gleaned from knowledge;
wisdom is revealed in actually applying the knowledge, the insight we have been given.
Wisdom, James emphasizes, must be shown or demonstrated in action
through our behaviors and more specifically, our relationships with others.
Simply put, wisdom is knowledge and insight being worked out
– lived out, according to James, “by a good life.”
Now when James speaks of a good life,
he isn’t talking about our definition of the good life.
When we invoke notions of the good life,
we primarily mean what’s good to and for ME
– our comfort, our pleasure, and our satisfaction.
But what James means by a good life is living in a good way.
The exact word James uses that is translated as “good”
evokes this the kind of life that is attractive
in its wholesomeness and helpfulness.
The good life, James invokes here,
is good in the sense that it is kind of life, the kind of living
that benefits everyone and not just oneself.
This definition reinforces James’ argument
that wisdom is shown through good conduct
– not doing whatever we can to stay out of trouble
but taking what we know to be right and practicing it by living rightly.
And James unpacks with this right kind of living looks like
as he speaks of “deeds done in humility that comes from wisdom.”
This may sound a bit like a circular statement.
Wisdom is shown by a good life of deeds
done in humility that comes from wisdom.
But what James is implying here that he explicitly states later in this passage
is that wisdom comes from above, from heaven.
In other words, true wisdom is, like everything else, a gift from God.
We might remember that all the way back at the start of this letter,
in chapter 1, verse 5, James insisted,
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God,
who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
And how we do receive this wisdom from God?
James tells us. Through a posture of humility.
Humility is the result of yielding before the grace of God,
accepting that we are unable to achieve anything on our own – including wisdom.
Humility is submitting to image of God, the character of Christ
that presses upon our tendency to try and do things our own way,
and instead, relying on the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit.
The book of Proverbs, which is a great conversation partner
with James’ letter puts in this way,
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
In all your way acknowledge Him and He will make your path straight.”
Our humble acknowledgment of God
– that we are following the way He sets before us,
is revealed through our humble service toward others
– good deeds done in the gentleness of wisdom.
It’s NOT that performing good deeds
is what makes us wise,
BUT rather, that our good deeds are
a response to the wisdom the Lord gives us.
Our good deeds reflect that we are living wisely
– living out of and sharing the grace we have been with others.
To put this another way,
true wisdom is not only the God-given ability
to see how in all our ways we may acknowledge God,
it is also actually acknowledging God in all our ways.
Before James goes further in breaking down true wisdom,
offering us positive examples so we can recognize it in practice,
James clarifies, through two negative examples,
of what is not is true wisdom from God.
Two, specific dispositions are highlighted:
“harboring bitter envy and selfish ambition in one’s heart”
First, James decries any sort of wisdom
that promotes attacking or hurting others in order to get ahead.
While we all may struggle with momentary flashes of envy,
the bitter envying James calls out here is anything
but a struggle or a momentary flash.
James is talking about a fixed disposition of jealousy
that cannot bear another person’s achievement or success
– so much so that bitterness marks their envy.
A person harboring bitter envy towards another,
will do carp and criticize, humiliate and degrade that person,
the one he or she envies in order to bring that person down.
The so-called wisdom of this approach is
in that person’s loss, failure, or total destruction,
I gain a victory – the victory of at least
not having to see that person being better off than me.
But to act in this way is not a reflection of wisdom;
it is a byproduct of one’s fear and insecurity.
Hence, James inseparably pairs bitter envy with selfish ambition.
Now, to be clear, the Bible teaches that we can and should be ambitious.
Ambition, “the desire to pursue honor or esteem” in and of itself, is not wrong.
The distinction is in what or for whom we seek honor or esteem.
Wisdom is seeking to honor and esteem or glorify God.
Wisdom is bringing glory to God by honoring and esteeming
the dignity and worth of others.
Selfish ambition is about pursuing honor, esteem, and glory for oneself
– primarily and often solely for oneself.
The so-called wisdom of selfish ambition believes
there can only be one winner and one loser.
Selfish ambition perceives the world in terms of “us” versus “them.”
The “us” are those who support and benefit what’s best for me.
The “them” are those who stand in the way or compete with my interests.
Again, the wisdom here is the only way to get ahead
is to take no prisoners, to take those in front of you down.
James says, one way you can recognize the display of such false wisdom is
those who exercise it will either boast about it or they will patently deny it.
Have we ever encountered anyone in our lives who fits this description?
– who either brags about their prowess in besting others – calling them losers
or who boldface denies such tactics – that what drives their ambitions is their own ego.
Have you experienced someone who conducts themselves like this?
Clearly, James has.
And in response to such an attitude,
before such displays of what is considered “wisdom”
(did you notice the air quotes in your Bible here?)
James declare this such “wisdom” is not wisdom at all.
No, James asserts it is earthly, unspiritual, and downright demonic.
To quickly break down James’ blistering critique…
By “earthly” James means this “wisdom” comes
not from the counsel of God
but from fractured insight of a broken world
– a world that lives apart or divorced from God’s will.
By unspiritual, James means this “wisdom” is purely temporal
– of a limited perspective – perceiving only the expediency of the moment
but lacking a view of the long-term consequences
– specifically, an eternal perspective.
By demonic, James means this “wisdom”
isn’t just counter or an alternative to divine wisdom;
it is directly, vehemently, and violently
in opposition to God’s will.
It is not just false wisdom. It is ungodly wisdom.
Here this loud and clear Church,
bitter envying and selfish ambition
aren’t just minor character flaws.
They aren’t postures of leadership
we should just normalize depending on
the kind of job one is asked to do either.
The ongoing practice of such behaviors,
engaging relationships in this way,
and as well as endorsing the “wisdom”
of those who do act like this is ungodly and demonic.
I didn’t say that. James did. The Bible does.
But perhaps we’re wondering,
how do we know, how do we recognize the wrong kind of wisdom?
And James tells us directly. Once again, it’s all about the fruit.
What we sow is evidenced by what we reap.
False, ungodly wisdom
– wisdom divorced from the grace of the Spirit
is witnessed through its product of
chaos and disorder, division and strife,
and even, evil
– often happening, ironically, tragically, in the name of God.
Where am I getting that idea from?
Notice how James takes great pains to separate
this “wisdom” from the wisdom that is from heaven!
To this end, Jesus presents us with a list of eight characteristics of God-given wisdom
– identifying virtues that stand in total contrast to the vices of false, ungodly wisdom.
If we take a general look at this list, we ought to notice
how it mirrors other passages in Paul’s letters that
speak of the Christian way of life
– passages like Paul’s description of true love in 1 Corinthians 13
or his articulation of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, chapter 5,
or his outline of a godly mindset in Philippians, chapter 4,
or his presentation of the lifestyle of the new person
who is in Christ in Colossians, chapter 3.
The point is, this isn’t some random list.
True, godly wisdom isn’t hard to recognize once you know what you’re looking for.
True wisdom like false wisdom is recognizable by its outcome.
God-given wisdom is PURE
– meaning it is transparent, honest, and without a hidden agenda.
There is no guile or deceit of any kind in its expression.
Wisdom borne of God offers counsel for the betterment of all
and not to manipulate others for one’s own ends.
God-given wisdom loves and PROMOTES PEACE.
It seeks unity and not uniformity.
It can accept and celebrate diversity
even as it appeals to greater points of commonality
– that we are all children created in the image of God,
that we have all been forgiven
and extended the grace of God in Jesus Christ,
that our God desires that none of His children would suffer or perish,
that we share a common calling from God to care for each other.
Godly wisdom is CONSIDERATE.
– that is fair, just, and patient
– engaging others with gentleness and respect
even if I don’t like or agree with another person.
Fourthly, Godly wisdom is SUBMISSIVE
– meaning reasonable, teachable, willing to listen
and to be responsive to the needs of others.
Fifth, God-given wisdom is full of MERCY
that is active in both expressing
more than just pity or remorse
but embodying empathy and compassion.
Sixth, Godly wisdom bears GOOD FRUIT
– practical, tangible manifestations
of God’s goodness not only in one’s life
but extended to others through one’s life.
God-given wisdom is IMPARTIAL
– in the sense of being unwavering
and consistent – not playing both sides
of an issue or a person.
And finally, Godly wisdom is SINCERE
It bears integrity. It is not hypocritical.
What it preaches, it practices.
Who wants wisdom? Everyone should raise their hand.
I have not met anyone who said that
they were not interested in having wisdom.
No one wants to be a fool. We all want wisdom.
The question is “What is the source of the wisdom we have?”
If there were ever a time for this word from James to sink in for us,
it would be now more than ever.
There’s lots of bravado about greatness these days.
There are lots of competing claims being thrown around about having wisdom.
But James says show the wisdom you claim to have
through the deeds you do
– and that work better look more like Jesus than it does YOU.
Otherwise, it’s not wisdom. It’s folly.
We need to step back and soberly reflect
on the leaders we follow
– our mentors, our role-models,
anyone to whom we listen and get informed by.
We need to consider all the various outlets
which shape and form our perception
and understanding of reality
– all the sources of news, trends,
opinions, and interpretations
that influence how we see ourselves,
each other, and the world.
And then, we need to evaluate the content
and the character of all those sources of wisdom
against the two lists James has provided for us here.
Which list better describes our sources of wisdom?
If the sources of our wisdom are marked by jealousy, envy, bitterness, selfish ambition,
boasting, denial, chaos and disorder, then wake up and realize you’re not smart.
You’re not wise. You’re acting like a fool.
We all want wisdom.
But we’re not all following God-given wisdom.
Did we notice what all these characteristics of God-given wisdom hold in common?
They all describe how we are to interact with others.
The focus is outward, looking first to God
and then out of what God gives us,
to exercise what we are given
– the wisdom we receive
– for the care and well-being of others.
This is the complete opposite of
the other “wisdom” James described.
The focus of false, ungodly wisdom
is entirely inward focused.
It starts with me and it ends with ME.
It evaluates and measures everything in terms of what’s in it for me?
What’s best for me?
It is so self-consumed there is no thought, no view, no room
for anyone else – including God.
The source of this “wisdom” that James declares comes from hell
goes all the way back to a garden called Eden.
This false, ungodly wisdom was whispered to our first ancestors, Adam and Eve
when they were told to trust in themselves alone apart from God.
And then foolishly, they accepted that advice as wisdom.
And we follow their lead every time we claim self-reliance,
to be self-determined, and self-sufficient.
We mimic their foolishness every time we insist on being self-centered,
self-promoting, and self-absorbed.
James says, Paul says, Jesus says, the Proverbs say, the whole Bible says,
there is no true wisdom in a self-made, self-serving person.
A person who has not checked himself,
denied himself, and given himself over to
the grace of God and the service of his neighbor
does not know, does not practice true wisdom.
This is because God-given wisdom isn’t something
for us to acquire and keep to ourselves as some sort of special secret knowledge.
If that’s what we think Godly wisdom is then, I’m sorry to tell us, we don’t have it.
There’s something else interesting about this passage.
While James describes God-given wisdom – what it looks like,
James never defines it as a concept.
James never gives us any instructions “Do this and you’ll be wise.”
This is because true wisdom isn’t a concept; it’s a person. It’s Jesus.
Jesus is the personification of divine wisdom
– of what it looks like when our humanity
reflects and abides in God’s will perfectly.
And here’s the thing, in Jesus giving Himself to us,
in embracing Christ – Christ in us through the Holy Spirit,
we have received the wisdom of God.
We have it already. God’s wisdom at our disposal.
But reflecting God-given wisdom is more than
holding up a Bible or professing to be a Christian.
Wisdom is a gift of God’s grace and like all gifts of God’s grace,
wisdom has to be exercised into for us to benefit from it
– in order for others to be blessed by the fruit of it.
And God-given wisdom is exercised not from being in control of our lives
but through yielding control and being led by the Word and the Spirit.
It has been said we are drowning in information, while we are starving for wisdom.
When people are starving for something,
they will become so desperate that they end up eating dirt
or worse, garbage, in order to satisfy their hunger.
Even in the midst of all we are going through these days
we who follow Jesus should not be starving right now
for we have the Bread of Life, the Living Water
– the wisdom of God on which to be sustained.
Why then Church, why are we still consuming so much dirt,
so much garbage and calling it wisdom?
If we continue to feed on garbage rather than the Gospel,
then we as the Church have become part of the problem
rather than the solution.
If, instead of maintaining a steady diet of the Word and the Spirit
– the character of Christ, we persist in filling up and being satisfied
with what is not wisdom – with what is false and ungodly.
we are guilty of feeding people not the Gospel, not Jesus
but deadly poison, that which is evil.
In a world looking for love in the voices of hate,
In a world hungering for real truth in a deepening web of lies,
In a world thirsting for righteousness before an ongoing drought of justice,
For such a time as this, at such a moment as ours,
as chaos reigns and peace seems impossible,
it’s time for we who follow Jesus to wise up.
The more we follow Jesus,
the closer we pay attention to the Word of God,
the deeper we allow ourselves to be influenced
and guided by the Holy Spirit,
then the wiser we will be
– the more we will actualize,
we will practice in and through our lives.
And this God-given wisdom will be evidenced not by our words
but through the humble work we do for the good of others
and not just for the good of ourselves.
Our God-given wisdom will be recognizable,
as James declares, through our ability
to make peace with each other
– to get along even when we disagree.
Our God-given wisdom will enable us to harvest righteousness together
— as we put aside our own pursuits of glory for the better of all persons
– as together we sow the seeds of salvation and yield the fruit of the Spirit
and thus, bring glory to God.
So, let’s get wise Church and stop being played for fools. Amen.